Some 3-5% of children are diagnosed with a condition called Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder or ADHD. In adults, it’s around 2.5%. In most cases, the condition is picked up in childhood. The revelation that a certain child has the condition will normally come during their earliest school years. Once classed as “naughty children”, child psychologists are finally beginning to understand its symptoms and how it affects children, but public perception is still rooted in the old school ideals of the “problem child” who is just a pest or a disruptive influence on other children.
What is ADHD?
It’s a group of symptoms that manifest in the form of behavioural problems in childhood and through to and into adolescence. Typical symptoms include:
• Inattentiveness – often judged as a lack of interest in academic work
• Hyperactivity – often judged as disruptive behaviour
• Impulsiveness – often judged as a lack of discipline or self-control
• Sleep problems which cause irritability and exacerbate some of the above
• Anxiety and depression.
Children with the condition often cannot sit still. They may lack organisational skills and struggle to concentrate on their schoolwork. It can negatively affect later academic achievement in the child’s formative years (including employability later), and even their work and social relationships. It is usually gone by adolescence, but for a small number it carries on into adulthood.
Interestingly, it’s more prevalent in boys than in girls.
What Causes ADHD
The short answer is that nobody knows. Much evidence has been published and the current theory is that ADHD has genetic causes but not a single genetic cause. It is typically the combination of a number of issues centring on genetics, but there are also non-inheritable factors that researchers still do not fully understand. There are treatments which have demonstrated some successes but until we fully understand what it is and its true causes way beyond a reasonable doubt, these treatments are not fully effective.
Now though, a new research project is starting to uncover some of the more complex genetic issues involved. It’s not just a new study, it also includes something called a “meta-analysis” which is a study of all previous studies, looking to find trends in existing information. So far, it has revealed potentially thousands of genetic risk factors of ADHD including some genes vital for healthy childhood development. Clearly, ADHD is a complex issue.
Why is it More Prevalent in Boys?
For every girl diagnosed, there are up to seven boys receiving an ADHD diagnosis. There are several possible answers to this.
• The first is that it manifests itself differently in girls and that the lack of understanding of the condition leads to teachers and medical professionals to assume an erroneous “one size fits all” mentality that isn’t helping girls with the condition
• A second is the different approaches to mental health support between boys/men and girls/women. How we treat the sexes from an early age can possibly be one contributing factor to how boys and girls engage. Genetic factors are, after all, a risk and not a guarantee with any medical condition. In this case, diagnosis in girls could be lower because they get more emotional support throughout their life.
Both of these scenarios present a type of health sexism – girls are ignored in the first instance, and the expectation on boys to “be a big boy” is exacerbating childhood issues for boys in the second.
Another is related to how we diagnose childhood mental illness. We know that depression manifests itself differently in males and females. This argument suggests that the same conditions are diagnosed as depression in young girls but as ADHD in boys. There is no difference between instances of the condition between the genders, merely in how we interpret symptoms.